Skip to main content

Full text of "Presbyterianism, a historical sketch : a sermon preached at the installation of Rev. Melton Clark as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Greensboro, North Carolina, April 7, 1907"

See other formats

A Sermon preached at the Installation 
of Rev. Melton Clark as Pastor of the 
First Presbyterian Church, Greensboro, 
North Carolina, April 7, 1907, by Rev. 
E. C. Murray, D. D., Graham. N. C. 

Digitized by the Internet Archive 
in 2013 

CAL Sketch. 

By Rev. E. C. Murray, D. D. 

Text : "The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more 
than all the dwellings of Jacob. 

"Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of 
God. Selah." 

"And of Zlon it shall be said, This and that man 
was born in her : and the Highest himself shall es- 
tablish her. 

The Lord shall count, when he writeth up the peo- 
ple, that this man was born there. Selah. 

"As well the singers as the players on instruments, 
shall he there : all my springs are in thee." 

he Lord delights in his church;: 
He loveth the gates of Zion 
more than all the dwellings of 
Jacob.'' To be a member of the church 
is an exalted privilege : Glorious things 

are spoken of thee, City of God of 

Zion it shall be said, This and that man 
was born in her; and the Highest Him- 
self shall establish her. The Lord shall 
count, when he writeth up the people^ 
that this man was born there. They that 
sing shall say, All my fountains are in 
thee." And especially may we feel a 
glow of worthy pride in the thought that 
we belong to the church that exemplifies 
the orignal principles of government and 
worship, and most faithfully conserves^ 
the ancient traditions. 
^ Presbyterianism is that system which 
ci regards the church as a spiritual com- 

wealth composed of the families of be- 
lievers. Its only Head and Lord is 
Christ. He governs his church through 
courts composed of presbyters (elders) 
or bishops. These presbyter-bishops are 
all of one order and of equal authority. 
The temporal affairs of the church are 
administered by deacons. All officers are 
elected by the members and ordained by 
the courts. Each congregation is govern- 
ed by its session, composed of several 
elders. The organic unity of the whole 
church is realized through an ascending 
series of courts of jurisdiction — Session, 
Presbyterv, Synod, and General Assem- 

Now let us trace the origin and his- 
torical development of these principles. 
The church as an organized society dates 
back to the time when God called Abra- 
ham out of heathendom, set apart his 
family as a peculiar people unto the 
Lord, made a special covenant with them 
and appointed circumcision as the seal 
of the covenant to be administered to 
the faithful and their offspring. The 
government of this primitive church was 
patriarchal, the head of the family, or 
elder, combining in himself all the func- 
tions of government, discipline and wor- 

As this one family grew into many, 
governmental authority was vested not 
only in the various heads of households 
individually, but in the heads of families 
and tribes collectively. Through these 
representatives God dealt with his peo- 


pie (Ex. 3:16). They administered gov- 
ernment (Deut. 22 :15-19, 25 :7) ; and dis- 
cipline (Deut. 21:18-19); and lead in 
worship (Lev. 4:15, Deut. 31:9-12. And 
finally Moses was directed to organize a 
Piipreme court of elders to exercise ju- 
risdiction over the whole nation — the 
first Presbyterian General Assembly 
(Num. 11:16-17). Here we find already 
aii ascending series of courts, composed 
of elders of households, of families, of 
tribes and of the iiaiii)n 

After the Babylonish captivity we 
note a further development of this Pres- 
byterian system, preparatory to the 
Christian dispensation. Synagogues 
were organized, each governed by a 
court of at least three elders, called 
'^rulers of the synagogue,'' (Mark 5:22, 
etc.) Jesus warned his disciples: ^^They 
will deliver you up to their sessions, and 
they will scourge you in their syna- 
gogues,'' (Matt. 10:17). Each syna- 
gogue had also its board of deacons. And 
there was established at Jerusalem a su- 
preme court of elders. ^^The Presbytery 
came together and led him into their 
session," (Luke 22:66). Paul appealed 
to ^'the high priest and the whole Pres- 
•bytery" (Acts 22:5). In all these pas- 
sages I translate the Greek literally. 

The Christian Church retained the fa- 
miliar organization and worship of the 
syangogue. Archbishop Whateley says: 

^^The apostles did not so much form 
a Christian church, as make an existing 
congregation Christian, leaving the ma- 


ehinery of government unchanged. And 
Bishop Lightfoot, the most learned of ail 
the English bishops, says: ^^They would 
naturally adopt the normal government 
of the synagogue, and a body of elders 
would be chosen to direct religious wor- 

The Apostle James applied the very 
name ^ ^ synagogue ' ' to the Christian 
church (Jas. 2:2). We find the same old 
officers, elders and deacons, in the new 
organization (1 Tim. 3, Tit. 1); The 
terms elder and bishop were applied in- 
terchangeably to the same office (Acts 
20:17, 28. Tit. 1:5, 7). These officers 
performed the same duties as formerly, 
the elders ^'ruling and laboring in word 
and doctrine'' (1 Tim. 5:17), and the 
deacons carng for the material welfare 
of the church (Acts 6:1-6). The pres- 
byters were organized in the same as- 
cending series of courts: each congrega- 
tion was governed by its sessioii, the 
apostles having elders elected in every 
church" (Acts 14:23); Timothy was 
ordained by ^Hhe laying on of the hands 
of Presbytery" (1 Tim. 4:14; and a dis- 
pute in the Presbytery of Antioch was 
settled by an appeal to the Synod of Je- 
rusalem (Acts 15:2, 16:4). The worship 
also of the Christian church contained 
the same simple spiritual elements as 
that of the synagogue. The Apostolic 
Church therefore was certainly neither 
congregational nor prelatical, but Pres- 

It is evident now why we do not con- 


cern ourselves about the question of 
apostolic succession. The Presbj'terian 
church was 2,000 years old before the 
apostles were born; they were reared in 
it and served it; and one of the greatest 
of them gloried in the fact that he was 
one of its presbyters. ''The elders I 
exhort, who also am an elder: feed the 
flock of God, taking the oversight there- 
of, not as being lords of God^s heritage, 
but bring ensamples to the flock (1 Pet. 
5:1-3). So spoke the apostle whom the 
Church of Rome claims as its first pri- 

As to the post-apostolic period, the 
scholarly Bishop of Salisbury declares 
that throughout the esirlj church, even 
at Rome and Alexandria, down to the 
third century, its government was Pres 
byterian. Deans Stanley and Milman 
are of the opinion that ''nothing like 
modern episcopacy existed before the 
second century.'' And Bishop Light- 
foot testifies that "Presbytery is not a 
later growth out of Epscopacy, but Epis- 
copacy is a later growth out of Presby- 
tery. ' ' 

What then were the causes of the de- 
cline of Presbyterianism ? The preach- 
ing elder ^became gradually regarded as 
superior to the others, and those of large 
city churches as superior to the country 
ministers. Ambitious presbyters usurp- 
ed more and more authority, and became 
"lords over God's heritage." By-and-by 
they assumed episcopal authority over 


the whole neighborhood, and thus arose 
the diocesan Bishop. 

Again, the church began to imitate in 
its worship the rites and ceremonies of 
the Jewish and heathen temples, and 
we hear of priests and altars and sacri- 
fices. The deacon became a levito, the 
presbyter a priest, and the bishop a high 
priest. And so sacerdotalism became the 
dominant idea of the ministry, and a 
tide of ritualism and clericalism swept 
over the church. 

The union of Church and State under 
Constantine in the fourth century re- 
sulted in a conformity in civil and eccles- 
iastical government. A regular grada- 
tion of church officers was instituted, 
bishops over dioceses, archbishops over 
districts, metropolitan bishops over pro- 
vinces, exarchs over several provinces, 
and patriarchs over empire. Of the lat- 
ter the patriarchs of Constantinople and 
Rome became preeminent; and thus 
arose the two ecclesiastical empires, the 
Greek and the Roman Catholic churches. 

Thus republican Presbyterianism grad- 
ually degenerated into aristocratic Epis- 
copacy, and finally into despotic Papacy. 

This, however, was not accomplished 
without opposition. Ambrose, in the 
fourth century, protested: ^^The syna- 
gogue, and afterwards the church, had 
elders, without whose counsel nothing 
was to be done; which grew into disuse, 
by what negligence I know not, unless 
by the cloth, or rather the pride, of the 
teachers (preachers) while they alone 


wished to appear something/' So also 
Jerome: Little by little the presbyters 
were defrauded out of their original 
rights. A presbyter is the same as a 
bishop; and before these were, by the 
devil's instigation, parties in religion 
. . . . the churches were governed 
by the common counsel of the presbyters. 
But afterwards it was determined that 
one presbyter should be set above the 
rest, to whom all the care of the churches 
should belong. So let the bishops know 
that they are above the presbyters more 
by the esteem of the church than by the 
true dispensation of Christ." 

The church was never without faithful 
witnesses against prelatical government, 
ritualistic worship and heretical doc- 
trines. There were from the beginning 
of the Middle Ages down to the Refor- 
mation large exceptions from the prin- 
ciples of episcopal government which 
can be called by no other name than 
presbyterian, ' ' (Bishop Lightfoot). In 
the mountains of Northwestern Italy and 
Southeastern France the Waldensees 
from very early times resisted the en- 
croachments of Papacy in the face of fu- 
rious persecutions and inhuman tortures 
that make one of the darkest bloodiest 
chapters in history. In 1880, their rep- 
resentative to our alliance of Reformed 
Churches holding the Presbyterian sys- 
tem, said: ^^We cannot call ourselves a 
reformed church because we have never 
been deformed.'' Here are tv/o articles 
in their constitution, written several 


hunclred years before the ,Reformati m; 
'^TLe duties of our pastor^ are to preach 
tbo word, administer the skcraments, and 
watch over the people, together with the 
elders and deacons, according to the 
practice of the primitive churches.'' 
^* pastors do call«-s once ev- 
ery ^ ear, to determine of all affairs in 
a general Synod.'' 

The Church of Scotland was another 
witness to the truth in the Dark Ages. 
Do you know that Saint Patrick, whom 
the Irish Catholics worship as their pa- 
tron saint, was really a Scotch Presbyte- 
rian missionary*? In the fifth century 
he evengelized Ireland, organizing 365 
churches and ordaining over them 365 
bishops or pastors and 3,000 elders. In 
563 A. D., Columba established on the 
island of lona, off the west coast of Scot- 
land, a mission station and college. This 
became the great missonary organization 
of those times, sending evangelists 
through Scotland, Britain, France, Ger- 
many and Switzerland, and spreading 
the pure gospel for 300 years. These 
Christians were called Culdees, because 
they were governed by Culdei or elders. 
Their preachers were ordained by elders 
and all called bishops. For 500 years 
tbey struggled with Rome. English wri- 
ters of the eighth century testify to the 
rejection of Romish ceremonies, doc- 
trines and traditions, their simple forms 
cf worship, and their republican govern- 
ment. These principles were never erad- 
icated in 'Scotland, and when John Knox 


preached a revival of Presbyterianism it 
was accepted readily. 

This brings us to the Reformation of 
the sixteenth century. Nearly all of the 
great reformers affirmed the original gov 
ernment of the church by presbyters; 
and the reformed churches of Switzer- 
land, Hungary, Moravia, Germany, 
France, Holland and Scotland embodied 
the Presbyterian church that adopted 
the prelatical system was that of Eng- 
land; because the reformation there was 
under the auspices of the kings; and as 
the astute James I. observed, ^'Mon- 
archy doth agree with presbytery as God 
doth agree with the devil. 

John Calvin devoted his illustrious 
talents to organizing a church in Geneva, 
Switzerland, on strictly biblical piinci- 
ples, in doctrine, government and wor- 
ship. Geneva with its schools, theolog- 
ical semnary and printing establishments 
became a center of religious influence, 
the inspiration of protestantism, and a 
model for other churches. And the re- 
publican principles there taught and ex- 
emplified became-' also the great forma- 
tion influence in modern political com- 

The Presbyterian Church of France 
(Huguenots) was for a time the greatest 
protestant church of Europe. At the 
massacre of Saint Bartholomew 75,000 
were butchered in Paris and elsewhere; 
and within thirty years nearly one rail- 
lion were martyred. After the rv^voea- 


tion of the Edict of Nantes the devoted 
church was almost annihilated. 

One of the most glorious chapters in 
Presbyterian history was the struggle of 
the sturdy Hollanders against the bloody 
Duke of Alva and the Catholic power 
of Spain, and- their final achievement of 
civil and religious liberty 

Among the students who flocked to 
Geneva was John Knox, of Scotland. He 
afterwards led in a strenuous fight 
against papacy in Scotland, and succeed- 
ed in having it abolished and Presbyte- 
rian: sm established. Then cam.e another 
contest for Christ ^s crown and covenant 
against the English hierarchy and Mon- 
archy; and so for a cenutry and a half 
this church had to ^^wade through bloody 

Since the Reformation these Presbyte- 
rian principles have been disseminated 
throughout the world by emigration and 
evangelization. Their adherents now 
number, in the United States and Cana- 
da, seven million; in Great Britain, five 
million; in Europe, eleven and a half 
million; and in other countries, one and 
a half million; a total of twenty-five mil- 
lion — the largest evangelical denomina- 
tion in the world. 

Our Presbyterian system is the herit- 
age of 4,000 years of glorious history. 
This was the government of 'Hhe 
Church in the Wilderness,'' and of the 
Hebrew Spiritual Commonwealth; after 
the Babylonish captivity it was provi- 
dentially modified so as to be admirably 


adapted to the conditions of the Chris- 
tian Church, and the apostles adopted 
and applied its principles; during the 
Dark Ages it was the conservator of ev- 
ery vital truth^ and its adherents were 
in the vanguard of the reforming forces; 
and they have ever since been leaders in 
the evangelization of the world. Thus 
it has been transplanted from Egypt to 
Canaan and from Canaan to Babylon; 
has been established in cultured i^reece 
and Barbarian Britain; has crossed one 
ocean to America and another to the 
Orient; and has been found adapted to 
every people and to all conditions. 

It has borne the shock of war and the 
rack and flame of persecution; has been 
baptized with the blood of martyrs, and 
nourished with the tears and prayers 
and labors of the most illustrious saints; 
has trained the noblest men and the 
grandest churches, and been the foster 
mother of modern republican liberties 
and institutions. '^It can never die; it 
will never see the decrepitude of old 
age; but will live in the unfading fresh- 
ness of self -renewing youth and the un- 
broken vigor of manhood to the end of 
time, and will outlive time itself.'' Yes, 
for round about the eternal throne sit 
four and twenty elders as the represen- 
tatives of the glorified church, and they 
^^fall down before him that sitteth on 
the throne, and worship him that liveth 
for ever and ever, and cast their crowns 
before the throne, saying. Thou are wor- 
thy, Lord, and receive glory and hon- 


or and power, for thou hast created all 
things, and for thy pleasure they art and 
wert created'' (Rev. 4:10-11). There 
in heaven itself our immortal church still 
fulfills her mission in hymning the 
praises and exalting the sovereignty and 
majesty of her Lord and Saviour. 

Let us study the doctrines and history 
of this grand old church, glory in the 
record of her past and pray for the suc- 
cess of her future, delight ourselves in 
her worship and consecrate ourselves to 
her service. ^^They that sing shall say, 
all my fountains are in thee.''